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After Florida Nursing Home Deaths, Senate Examines When Vulnerable Should Flee Hurricanes

(Image via Museum of the Bible)

WASHINGTON – As Florida continues recording deaths from a nursing home that Hurricane Irma left without air conditioning, a Senate panel today debated when disaster evacuation is appropriate.

The Hollywood Police Department on Tuesday announced that a ninth person had died following the evacuation of 140 elderly from the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. Police have opened a criminal investigation into storm response at the facility, which has claimed that it called Florida Power & Light 50 times during the hurricane. According to CBS News, FPL was able to get the nursing home’s power running in 20 minutes when it was finally able to respond.

Kathryn Hyer, an aging studies professor at the University of South Florida, told the Senate Special Committee on Aging that there were 40 post-storm evacuations of nursing homes after Hurricane Irma. In many cases, this was because the nursing homes lacked backup electricity generation, but some were the result of fallen trees and damaged roofs.

“If you’re going to get a hurricane Category 5, I’m not sure that nursing homes should stay,” Hyer said. “I’m not sure that any nursing home should stay with a Category 5 hurricane coming directly at them. It’s just devastating.”

She said that emergency response personnel have told her that communities should run from water but hide from wind in the event of storms. However, she said the bottom line is that places like nursing homes need to be equipped to handle the aftermath.

Gov. Rick Scott on Saturday issued new state regulations requiring nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to be equipped with generators capable of maintaining suitable temperatures for at least 96 hours after power failure, which is the requirement for hospitals. Facilities have 60 days to comply with the new mandate, and failure to adhere could mean license revocation.

Committee chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) noted that evacuations sometimes create more problems than staying in place. During the 2005 evacuation for Hurricane Rita, 24 people died when a bus carrying nursing home residents caught fire and exploded while stuck in traffic on a Dallas freeway. The bus was transporting 38 residents and six employees from the Brighton Gardens nursing home in Houston.

“In (some) cases, more people died in automobile accidents while trying to get out of the area,” Collins said, while speaking about evacuations in general. “While the act of evacuation can be totally appropriate in many cases, it can actually be more dangerous than sheltering in place.”

Today’s hearing had been delayed to avoid interference with response for Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey. Both of the committee’s Florida lawmakers – Sens. Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D) — were not present, as they are back in their state dealing with Irma’s aftermath.

Collins warned residents in Florida of two prominent scams that tend to surface after disasters, both of which target elderly populations. The first involves individuals posing as charities and claiming to pass along donations to victims. The other involves people posing as construction workers and contractors, offering services to rebuild homes and structures. They ask for a down payment, and once the money is paid they disappear.

The chairwoman also detailed what she sees as progress since the 2006 release of a seven-month investigation into Hurricane Katrina response. Collins’ office collaborated with now-retired Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in developing recommendations for improving disaster response.

“I can see the huge amount of progress since I conducted that investigation into the very inconsistent and in some ways failed response to Hurricane Katrina. So we have made great progress, but we still have a long ways to go,” Collins said. “So we’re learning from every disaster, and we’re learning how being prepared today can make the difference between safety and danger – and, in many cases, literally the difference between life and death.”